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Alternative approaches to grading

Traditional grading has been shown to undermine students’ motivation (Kohn, 2011) and perpetuate bias (Malouf and Thorenstein, 2016). While we all need to collect information about student learning and share that information with students, “Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades” (Kohn, 2011, p. 1). Ungrading, labor-based grading, and specifications grading are three approaches to assessment that reframe the relationship between students’ output and instructors’ evaluation of that output, prioritizing formative assessment and learning processes.


Ungrading refers to assessment practices that prioritize feedback on student learning but do not provide a letter grade on individual course assignments (Blum, 2020). Final grades for a course are often determined via a portfolio of course work, with students making a case for what their final grade should be based on that portfolio. Considering that assessment should be designed to evaluate student learning and to offer an opportunity for growth, this approach encourages students to take intellectual risks and engage in self-directed learning. Additionally, ungrading promotes a growth mindset by focusing on feedback and improvement rather than fixed performance metrics (Hartman). Overall, ungrading promotes a holistic approach to education that prioritizes student agency, authentic learning experiences, and meaningful feedback.

Labor-Based Grading

Labor-based grading entails providing feedback and assessment of student learning, but not grading individual assignments. Instead, students are given credit for engaging in course activities designed to support student learning, and are rewarded for persistence, revision, and deepened engagement with material rather than mastery. Often structured by what are called “contracts,” which enumerate specific actions students will take, such as completion of a given number of assignments or engagement with a structured series of peer feedback opportunities, labor-based grading builds in flexibility and allows students to control the outcomes of their course experience based on their own interests and commitments. Labor-based grading has been identified as an inclusive and anti-racist assessment practice because it values the effort students put into their learning, and does not penalize students whose educational backgrounds and language practices might diverge from white mainstream academic standards (Inoue, 2022).

Specifications Grading

Specifications grading, or specs grading, was developed by Linda Nilson and described in detail in her book Specifications grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. In summary, specs grading emphasizes feedback on assignments while deemphasizing points. The approach emphasizes transparent assignment design and the development of clear specs that the students need to meet in order to receive a pass on an assignment. These specs are defined as the standards that would be acceptable for traditionally B-level work or better. Students who meet the specs on an assignment receive a pass. If students do not meet the specs on an assignment, they do not pass and have the opportunity to revise. For courses in which students must be assigned a letter grade, the instructor defines how many passed assignments are required for different letter grades by the end of the quarter. There are lots of variations that can be applied to specs grading depending on the context of the course and the instructor. Specs grading can be applied to a subset of assignments rather than all parts of the class. The number of revisions allowed is up to the instructor and may vary for different types of assignments although it should be clearly communicated in all cases. Overall, specs grading decreases anxiety for students who have a clear sense of the expectations on assignments and who know they can incorporate feedback through revisions. This grading approach works very well with Transparency in Learning and Teaching (TiLT), a foundational concept for this DRT resource on Assignment Design. In addition, specs grading decreases grading time as the instructor can focus on giving actionable feedback rather than, for example, figuring out how many points each deduction is worth.

Ideas for Implementation

Instructors who implement alternative approaches to assessment sometimes redesign entire courses in order to adopt this new approach. There are also lower-lift ways to incorporate elements of these approaches into teaching, and some faculty choose to combine elements from one alternative grading approach, like specs grading for assignment feedback, with aspects of another alternative grading system, such as using ungrading for final grades where students assign themselves a grade at the end of the quarter based on a rubric. 

Considering a course redesign? Here are some examples of labor-based contracts and an ungrading syllabus that might provide inspiration:

Eager to incorporate aspects of these alternative approaches, but not ready to take the full course-redesign plunge? Here are some ideas:

  • Exams 
    • Alternative Assessments: Consider replacing traditional exams with alternative forms of assessment, such as problem sets, essays, presentations, projects, or portfolios. These assessments can provide a more authentic measure of students' understanding and skills. Even in STEM courses, some faculty using ungrading have shifted away from exams entirely.
    • Collaborative Exams: Design exams that require collaboration among students, such as group problem-solving or discussion-based assessments. This encourages teamwork, critical thinking, and communication skills while reducing the emphasis on individual performance. As Jesse Stommel writes, exams are “at their best when they are formative tools for learning, not just standardized mechanisms for summative (or end-of-learning) assessment. Collaborative exams allow students the opportunities to learn from and teach each other.” 
    • Exam Wrappers: Before and after exams, have students complete "exam wrappers" where they reflect on their preparation strategies, confidence levels, and areas of confusion. This promotes metacognition and helps students develop effective study habits. Examples from across the disciplines (Carnegie Mellon)
    • Open-Book or Open-Note Exams: Allow students to use their textbooks, notes, or other resources during exams. This shifts the focus from memorization to application and critical thinking, better reflecting real-world scenarios where information is readily available. As Jesse Stommel writes, “Open-book and self-graded exams are not as good at sorting or ranking students, but they are often just as good (if not better) tools for learning.”
  • Assessment/Feedback
    • Feedback-Centric Grading: Rather than assigning numerical scores, provide detailed feedback on each exam question or section. Focus on highlighting areas of strength and offering constructive suggestions for improvement. This feedback-oriented approach shifts the focus from grades to learning outcomes.
    • Revision Opportunities: Offer students the chance to revise their exams based on feedback received. This allows them to learn from their mistakes and demonstrate their understanding of the material through iterative improvement.
    • Rubrics and Descriptive Criteria: Use rubrics with descriptive criteria to assess exams, focusing on specific learning outcomes and competencies rather than assigning numerical scores. This provides students with clear expectations and facilitates consistent, constructive feedback.
    • Self-Assessment and Reflection: After taking exams, encourage students to reflect on their performance and self-assess their understanding of the material. This can help them identify areas where they need further study or clarification.

Additional Resources

Blum, S., ed. (2020) Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia University Press.  

Danielewicz, J. and Elbow, P. (2009). A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching. College Composition and Communication

Hartman, R., Feldstein, L., and Stramel, J. (February 14, 2024). Empowering your students agency through ungrading practices. The Scholarly Teacher.

Inoue, A (2022). Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, 2nd ed. WAC Clearinghouse: University Press of Colorado. 

Kohn, A. (November 2011). The case against grades. Retrieved from

Malouff, J. and Thorsteinsson, E. (2016). “Bias in grading: A meta-analysis of experimental research findings.” Australian Journal of Education 

Nilsson, L. (2014). Specifications Grading. Taylor & Francis. 

Stommel, Jesse. (2020) Ungrading: A FAQ. 

Talbert, Robert. (2022). What I’ve Learned from Ungrading.


Page authors: Amy Lueck, Faculty Associate and Department of English, Loring Pfeiffer, Department of English, and Christelle Sabatier, Department of Biology

Last updated: April 23, 2024